After DEI bill, this is what Utah’s college presidents fear will be the next target of lawmakers

“There’s deep concern among academics,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Taylor Randall looks over campus from a balcony on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Randall said on Thursday, March 21, 2024, that he believes general education curriculum at the state's public colleges and universities will be the next target of the Utah Legislature after the anti-DEI bill.

Utah’s higher education leaders are bracing for what will be “next in the firing line” after the overhaul of campus DEI programs — with several saying they feel that’s just the start of the state trying to assert more control over public colleges and universities.

The target they say is now being locked in: the curriculum that professors teach, mainly around general education classes.

“I think we ought to learn from the DEI thing and get out ahead of it in a meaningful way,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall. “There’s deep concern among academics.”

Randall and other school presidents shared the same worries during a meeting last month of the Utah Board of Higher Education, as members talked about the recent legislative session and what’s expected to come in the interim.

Geoff Landward, who had serving as the interim commissioner over higher education for the state and was officially named to the post during the meeting — subject to Utah Senate confirmation — said those fears are justified. About state lawmakers, he said: “They are watching.”

The U. was the focus of a bill that came up late in the legislative session — and failed — that would have forced the school to establish an independent School of General Education to instruct all students for their required introductory coursework. Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, who ran the legislation, outlined that he wanted the focus on western civilization, mainly European communities, and to specifically include “the rise of Christianity.”

There were also to be several courses on the “principles, ideals, and institutions of law, liberty and civic virtue that underpin the American constitutional order.”

Randall spoke out about the measure during the one committee hearing, where it didn’t move forward after a 2-5 vote. And the Utah System of Higher Education issued a rare rebuke of the legislation, saying that lawmakers should work directly with university and college presidents to solve issues.

The bill would have been an unprecedented move by the Legislature to dictate specific college curriculum. And officials don’t believe they’ve seen the end of it.

Landward said the idea was to start with the U. and then “it would be expanded to the entire system.”

Randall said the U.’s general education curriculum already includes 85% of what Johnson wanted. The president said there also are broad options available for students that cover “viewpoint diversity” — a large focus of the DEI bill.

But, he said, legislators have told him they would like to see a more unified experience that all students get when completing the general education requirements. And there was some discussion, Randall noted, that the current offerings are indoctrinating students to a certain perspective. Professors at the U. have spoken out against that.

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez also challenged the idea. “I think the characterization that general education is an indoctrination of minority views is wrong,” she said. “The bulk of what we offer is classic.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Still, Randall suggested the curriculum focus would follow a similar path as the DEI measure, which is when he called the issue “next in the firing line.” The diversity bill was first brought up late in the 2023 legislative session, and failed, before being resurrected this year, passed and signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox.

HB261 prohibits the eight public colleges and universities in the state from using the words “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or DEI, in the name of a central campus office; those must be transitioned to “student success and support centers.” They are also required to open any specific race- or gender-based programs to all students. And any questions about diversity or diversity statements are prohibited in the hiring process for faculty and staff.

The measure extends, too, to K-12 schools and government offices.

Both Landward and Randall said the push here came out of national conversations from Republicans.

Landward said higher education staff worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help shape Utah’s bill and soften it. The original draft, he said, was a full ban of anything DEI-related, including eliminating those staff positions. And it included limits on curriculum before those were negotiated out, he said.

But the bill does require faculty over mandatory university courses to publish their syllabi online “on the institution’s website in an online database readily searchable by the public,” according to the text of HB261.

To many, that also signals the start of more rigorous vetting of curriculum by the state.

“The publication of syllabi has some worried,” said Weber State President Brad Mortensen.

The commissioner said he was satisfied with the final version, but he warned college presidents to follow the measure or risk possibly facing more strict DEI requirements next year “because they (lawmakers) are unhappy with our compliance.”

Currently, the Utah System of Higher Education is drafting a document with attorneys to help schools comply with the law; and Landward acknowledged that it would take time to implement the changes.

So far, Utah Valley University has changed the name of its DEI center — the first in the state to do so — to the Office of Institutional Engagement and Effectiveness. Other college presidents said during the meeting that they have started shifting staff around and restructuring their offices.

“We’re pivoting,” said retiring Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin.

But, she said, the bill and the anticipation of what’s to come is causing stress. She worries that students of color won’t get the message that they are welcome at SLCC. Some faculty are leaving over it.

She added: “There’s a lot of fear still.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin speaks on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.